Rodriguez, Jose Antonio. “House Built on Ashes: A Memoir”, University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.
In 2009, José Antonio Rodríguez, a doctoral student at Binghamton University in upstate New York, was packing his suitcase and getting ready to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with his parents in South Texas. He soon learned from his father that a drug cartel has overtaken the Mexican border village where he was born and because of the violence there, he won’t be able to visit his early-childhood home. Instead, he will have to rely memories to take him back.
With this, Rodríguez takes us on a meditative journey into the past. Through a series of vignettes, he gives the details of a childhood and adolescence that were filled with deprivation yet often offset by moments of tenderness and beauty. He remembers when he was four years old and his mother fed him raw sugarcane for the first time. With the sweetness of the sugar still in his mouth, he ran to a field, where he fell asleep and all was good.
When conditions of rural poverty were too much for his family to bear, Rodríguez and his mother and three of his nine siblings moved across the border to McAllen, Texas. He experienced the luxury of indoor toilets and television commercials that showed more food than he had ever seen but he also realized that there was no easy passage to gain a brighter future.
Rodriguez writes about the promises, limitations, and contradictions of the American Dream and even though this is a personal story, we see the larger issues of political, cultural, and social realities. He writes about what America is and what it is not. We see this world as one of hunger, prejudice, and too many boundaries. Rodriguez also writes of the “redemptive power of beauty and its life-sustaining gift of hope.”
“House Built on Ashes” is Rodríguez’s account of a creative, sensitive, intelligent child who grew up “not quite here and not quite there”. When he realizes that he is gay, he begins to question the traditional and antiquated customs up against a culture 0f machismo and learning “that dignity is essential but costly.”
The book has a unique and atypical structure. It isloosely chronological with the story being told in lyrical and spare prose and with great detail.
As he packed for that Thanksgiving trip, he is reminded of the world that he once lived in and states, “I think of what we lose when we win.” Reading this, we all win.